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How to be Cool-Headed and Decisive Like General Ulysses S. Grant

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Ulysses_S_Grant_by_Brady_c1870-restored“In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.” – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Union Army General & 18th President of the United States, 1822-1885

The following article is a guest post from Erik Hill. Read the author's bio below.

It should come as no surprise that decision-making and being resolute in those decisions are hallmarks of manliness. Simply put, a man needs the ability to have command over his life and be able to make the right decisions at the right time. As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “ In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Roosevelt knew full well that hand-wringing didn’t produce good decisions.

Yet, in today’s world more and more men are self-conscious and unsure of themselves, which means that making the right decision is not always easy. Also, in the age of the Internet, our bad decisions are often recycled and replayed through social media, where we are made to feel the full brunt of judgment from our peers. Furthermore, today we have fewer leaders to look up to when it comes to good decision making. Too often than not, we see leaders poor decisions mirroring our own, albeit on a much smaller scale.

General Ulysses S. Grant

Examples of manly leadership and quality decision-making may be in short supply today, but one need only look to history to see how great men lived, and how decisions, both good and bad, helped to shape their lives. We can learn a lot from how men of old made some of the most difficult decisions of their lives, and how they came out on the other side. Once such hero was General Ulysses S. Grant who was the guiding hand of the Union Army during the Civil War (1861-1865). Without his decisiveness, the bloody contest would have likely been prolonged. But decisive heroes are made not born, and Grant was no exception.

Heroes (and Leaders) are Made

Ulysses S Grant with Hat“There never was a time when, in my opinion, some way could not be found to prevent the drawing of the sword.” – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

Prior to his fame garnered during the Civil War, Grant was an above average student and particularly skilled equestrian. Much like James A. Garfield, who also turned out to be an amazing leader on the field of battle, Grant had no taste for war and instead desired to be a teacher. Nominated to West Point, he planned on attending and fulfilling his 4 year commitment and hanging up his hat. However, Grant found something of a calling and purpose in military service, and though he did not always agree with the reasons for the wars, he was quickly becoming a revered leader. He left the Army after 10 years of service and earning the rank of Captain.

The near decade of civilian life was almost his ruin. Having no practical vocational skills and no money, he and his family struggled severely. The hero on the field of battle found himself poor and directionless at home.

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, he put himself into motion recruiting soldiers for the war effort. Pretty soon he found himself commanding his own gathering of troops in a string of early-war victories. Later, the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi and Chattanooga, Tennessee solidified his reputation as the war’s premier general. Grant’s rise during the Civil War was meteoric to say the least.

Grant’s quick ascension in rank and name-recognition was made possible by his own cool-headed brand of decision-making. Even in a hail of gunfire and smoke, Grant could remain level-headed and calm. He didn’t allow the direness of a situation to force him towards hasty decisions. In a sober and firm manner he made the next decision the right one. And, once a decision was made, he didn’t question himself. As historian H.W. Brands writes in The Man Who Saved the Union:

“Grant, for reasons perhaps partly inborn and partly acquired, rarely revisited choices once   made. He planned according to the information at hand; he prepared for all reasonable contingencies; he decided what to do as events unfolded. Then, calm in the conviction that he could have done no more, he accepted what destiny delivered.”

By 1864, Grant’s decisive command had reached President Abraham Lincoln. The President admired Grant’s grit, drive, and determination to bring the war to a close. Lincoln promoted Grant to Lieutenant General, with command over the entire Union army. Not everyone agreed with Lincoln’s decision, after all, Grant was quiet, stoic, and reticent – quite unlike other flamboyant Civil War generals who wore their ambitions on their sleeves. Lincoln later had no trouble defending his decision:

Abraham Lincoln“[Grant is] the quietest little fellow you ever saw…He makes the least fuss of any man you ever saw. I believe two or three times he has been in this room a minute or so before I knew he was here. It’s about so all around. The only evidence that you have that he’s in any place is that he makes things git! Wherever he is, things move!” – President Abraham Lincoln on General Grant

And make things move he did. In less than a year after assuming control of the Union Army, Grant had brought the war to a close, one decision at a time. He became nothing short of a Civil War hero. He was the cool-headed man of action who had made the tough decisions, often in the nick of time, who helped end years of bloody fighting.

Grant and the Man of Today

Ulysses-S_-Grant“My failures have been errors in judgment, not of intent.” – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

So what can the modern man learn from such a hero? After all, the battlefield today for most men is more likely to be at home, or in the office, or the factory floor, none of which readily translate from the grand escapades of the Civil War. However, good decision-making is of paramount importance in a man’s life, no matter where he finds himself.

  • Make things “git.” Be a man of action!  Don’t wait for the right decision to present itself – make something happen.
  • Be a man who is cool-headed and sober in the face of tough decisions.
  • Plan for what could happen in the future. Be ready for life’s curve balls.
  • Don’t fret or worry over past decisions. Keep moving forward as Grant did throughout the war. Looking back and hand-wringing never did anyone any good. Sometimes you have to just accept that you’ve made the best decision possible at the time.
  • Accept what destiny/fate/God delivers. Even the best laid plans and decisions fall on their face or don’t work out. In those cases, it’s best to just “ make a new plan, Stan” and keep moving forward. What is my next move? What can I do in this moment?

Don’t be a victim of past circumstances, instead be a creator of new opportunities.

Erik Hill is an Adjunct English Instructor at Davidson County Community College in North Carolina. He is an avid trail runner, whose interests revolve around history and English literature. He spends most of his days dreaming of the days of yore. —

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